Friday, March 24, 2023

Football Coach’s Wisdom Can Serve Educators Well During COVID-19 Crisis

Bob Sullivan, the head coach of my college football team a zillion years ago (and one of the most important people in my life), had a long list of attitudes and qualities he wished to cultivate in his players. These attitudes and qualities were borrowed from his experiences as a coach and from variously successful coaches, leaders, and even pop culture, and, fully assembled, they made up what he called his Psychology of Winning.

And the Psychology was no mere ornament. It was foundational to our team culture — so crucial, in fact, that Coach Sully kicked off every season by explicitly teaching it to the entire team. (Yes, even before any film study or X- and O-heavy chalk talks.) And from that point forward, Coach Sully would use Psychology-based slogans to trigger the states of mind he wanted players to assume in specific, adverse situations.

While each of these slogans has its own backstory and rationale (the Psychology of Winning lecture was over two hours long, and came with several pages of notes), I won’t go into them. Here, though, is a peek at how he applied it:

  • Situation: Offense has the ball, fourth and goal from the one-yard line with under a minute to play, and previous two run attempts have been stuffed for no gain.
    • Coach Sully, in the timeout huddle, calling the same play a third time: ‘This is it. On this play, we all need to reach a quarter-inch higher.’
  • Situation: DT repeatedly unable to defeat the opposing guard’s trap block.
    • Coach Sully, to the frustrated player: ‘Stop trying to do it. Just do it!‘ [Yep. Straight Yoda. Mentioned that he borrowed widely for these insights, did I not? Heh heh heh.]
  • Situation: Offense gets the ball on their own 17 with one minute and 34 seconds remaining, one timeout, and down by five points.
    • Coach Sully, to the offense before they take the field: ‘Don’t be too careful, offense! GOYA!‘ (GOYA=’Get Off Your Ass’ or if you want it, go get it)

I’ve gone back to Sully’s Psychology of Winning countless times over my career in education, and I’ve seen it have some pretty amazing effects on students and athletes alike. (It registers with schools’ adults, too, for that matter.) In fact, I’ve had former students quote Psychology lines back to me years removed from my time with them, saying that the principles helped keep them steady as they worked their way through some adversity or another

‘Football is life,’ indeed.

Sully & me at his 80th birthday celebration, April 2017

‘Aw Shit’ Time

With all that prelude in mind, I’ll explain one item from Coach Sully’s Psychology of Winning in a bit more detail: the idea of ‘Aw Shit’ Time.

In short, ‘Aw Shit’ Time signifies the inevitable times in football games/seasons when some sudden unfortunate change* — a turnover, a score by the opposition, an injury, etc. — makes someone on the sideline reflexively exclaim, ‘Aw shit!’

Coach Sullivan urged us to pay special attention to our attitudes in ‘Aw Shit’ Time, first because adversity is inevitable in anything competitive, and next because adversities, if not taken on willingly and boldly, have a tendency to pile up. He told us it was okay to be angry or even a little scared (to get the ‘Aw shit!’ off our chests, in other words), but that we had to quickly bring our eyes back up: to focus, put our helmets on, sprint onto the field, and attack the adversity. Make the play. Be a hero. (You picking up that whole relish challenges piece, by the way? Yeah, Sully was pretty much doing growth mindset years before Carol Dweck was Carol Dweck.)

At bottom, Coach emphasized that people who responded to ‘Aw Shit’ Time with head-hanging, blaming, or hesitancy would have a tough time overcoming adverse circumstances of any kind.

COVID-19 and Education: Serious ‘Aw Shit’ Time

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with all this. For yes, the COVID-19 outbreak is a sudden unfortunate change that has most of the world saying ‘Aw, shit’.

And I won’t lie: from the point the news started coming in that large adjustments would be made (and my oldest daughter’s beloved college sent her home, my youngest daughter’s long-anticipated trip to Spain with the school band was called off, a researchED conference I was to speak at in Sweden was postponed, I was informed my instruction would be delivered via ‘distance learning’, etc., etc.), I did not respond as Coach Sullivan had taught me to nearly 30 years ago. At school I kept my head down and worked on re-figuring all my plans, offering little insight or leadership to my fellow team members. And away from school, well…let’s just say that quite a few Will Ferrell movies got watched. Basically, I let myself get stuck in ‘Aw shit’.

Around Thursday or Friday of last week, though, I found myself putting my helmet on.

Talking to friends all over education, I realized that while the discussion we’ve been working so hard at for the past few years (and that is picking up some nice steam, I must say) may have to pause a bit, other valuable opportunities for discussion and learning are opening up. None of us know how to do this well (hell, even people who work at this 24/7/365 don’t), so we can use the networks we’ve built and strengthened to hold each other up. It’s not the situation we wanted to be in, maybe, but we can still make a game-saving play. And, dear ed cases, doing so ourselves may be more important than we think: lots of ed-sharks are starting to circle out there, viewing this moment as a profitable opportunity.

Choosing My Attitude

For the foreseeable future, then, I’ll be using this space to talk about the current distance-learning moment: things I’m doing with my students and in my building that seem to be working (and not working), ways I’m attempting to translate my usual classroom principles to the distance-learning context, reactions and recommendations based on developments in the field, and so on.

And hey: As you make your own way through this, whether you’re a teacher, administrator, support person, parent, or whatever, please consider blogging about your experiences or at least connecting with other ed cases on Twitter/Facebook/etc. We’re the ones doing the stuff, folks, and learning important lessons as we go. Time for us to make the plays, and to be the experts. If you’re not sure blogging’s for you, check out these three great blogs I’ve seen already. They’re by evidence-committed educators managing the current situation, and they may spark some ideas about matters you’d like to take on yourself.

Finally and most importantly, I’m committing to doing the best job I can for my kids and my school, even if I haven’t quite figured out what day it is yet. (I’m pretty proud, even, of my distance-learning plan. Watch this space for updates about whether that early pride is a foolish one.)

My helmet’s on. Let’s go make a play.

This piece first ran here (with a different title) on the author’s personal blog.

Eric Kalenze
Eric Kalenze’s career in education has included posts in teaching, coaching, administration, and consulting. He is the author of 2019’s ‘What the Academy Taught Us’ and 2014’s ‘Education Is Upside-Down’, and he regularly contributes pieces about education practice, research, and reform to publications like Education Week, Education Post, The Hechinger Report, Education Next, and TES US, as well as to his blog, ‘A Total Ed Case’. Based in Minnesota’s Twin Cities metro area, he currently teaches high school and serves as Curriculum and Instruction Lead at Apple Valley’s FIT Academy, plus works with schools/districts as an independent consultant and serves as researchED’s US Ambassador. @erickalenze


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